CONSULTANTS hired to investigate inappropriate comments made by the city’s former mayor cost taxpayers £15,780.

But council leaders have defended the spending saying it was necessary to avoid allegations of bias if its own staff had investigated former Liberal Democrat councillor Alan Armitage.

Mr Armitage was accused of telling a 13-year-old girl at an Iffley Road sporting event last June, “It’s sexy when you bend down like that.”

He denied the allegations but bosses brought in Pontefract consultancy firm Solace Enterprises, which produced a 51-page report to the council’s standards committee in February.

This said it was “highly probable” he made the comment and Mr Armitage was censured by the committee that month for breaching its code of conduct.

Labour council leader Bob Price defended hiring the outside firm rather than letting council officers investigate, which is the usual practice. He said: “There would have been a danger of being seen as being biased in favour of the person being investigated.

“It was felt appropriate to go external as it was something that could be potentially difficult.”

It was the first time the council had brought in an outside firm to probe a standards complaint, he said.

The final £15,786.30 bill was revealed in a Freedom of Information request and includes 14 days work at £850 a day, £412.85 accommodation, £842.40 travel costs and VAT of 20 per cent.

Mr Armitage yesterday declined to comment but Lib Dem leader Jean Fooks backed the spending.

A finding in his favour could have attracted allegations of a “whitewash” she said while a critical report could be labelled a “witch-hunt”.

She said: “There is a strong case for having an independent person so there can be no accusation of bias.”

Mrs Fooks added: “It is right there should be an independent person doing it. It is one of the costs of democracy.”

But TaxPayers’ Alliance political director Jonathan Isaby said: “Of course it is important that serious allegations of this nature are properly investigated, but taxpayers will be astounded at being landed with a bill for nearly £16,000.

“The council must not allow costs to escalate unnecessarily, especially when budgets are so tight.”

Council spokeswoman Louisa Dean said its monitoring officer – responsible for complaints against councillors – made the decision as they “deemed it appropriate for the matter to be investigated by an independent expert”. Three other firms were considered.

The council did not provide details of travel and accommodation costs when asked by the Oxford Mail.

Mr Armitage quit within a week of the committee’s decision and his North ward seat was won by Labour’s Louise Upton last month.